Mike Jones, the boys basketball coach at Maryland's DeMatha Catholic High School, figured that after a few days, a week or two tops, Victor Oladipo would lose interest. Oladipo, then a freshman under Jones' tutelage, had suffered a fracture in his foot that left his leg encased in a boot.
To Jones' surprise and curiosity, Oladipo returned day after day—to practices, workouts and summer camps. Oladipo did whatever he could to remain helpful and within eyesight, sweeping floors, collecting trash and working the concession stands. Jones didn't discourage Oladipo's presence. Still, one day, he couldn't help but ask why any teenager who couldn't play voluntarily showed up before others who could. "Coach," Oladipo responded, "honestly, I don't want you guys to forget about me."
Jones learned more about Oladipo's mentality the more he spent time around the family. Long a storied basketball powerhouse, DeMatha held a ceremony to honor Oladipo shortly before the Orlando Magic took him with the second overall selection in the 2013 draft. Oladipo's mother, Joan, arrived in nursing scrubs. She had left work to attend the event and needed to return as soon as it ended. "Knowing that her son's getting ready to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft, the work ethic his family has always had is second to none," Jones said.
"That's just how my mom is," Oladipo said. "Her and my dad showed us how to work hard and instilled it in us that, in order for us to achieve anything in this world, you have to work hard. Don't expect anybody to give you anything. Don't expect to be given anything. Don't expect for people to care. You should treat them the way you want to be treated, but don't expect them to do the same. But at the end of the day, it's just how we're bred, from me and my sisters and my parents. That's just how we are. We work really hard to get what we want."
He will need to rely on that resolve in the coming months. While defending a pass against Toronto in a January game, Oladipo collapsed to the ground. Athletic trainers immediately attended to him in front of a stunned crowd, covering Oladipo's legs with a towel. He had suffered a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee, an injury that prematurely ended his season.
"The surgery was amazing; it was truly a success," Oladipo said in a message after the procedure. "I'll be back better than ever. Everybody stay feathery. Shoutout to all my teammates, man. Keep pushing, man. We got it." He's already posted video of himself shooting set shots, with his legs elevated, on Instagram and captioned it with one of Lil Wayne's ad-libs: "They can't stop me! Even if they stopped me!"
Meanwhile, Oladipo will embark upon a rehabilitation process estimated to take months. He has been dismissed and discarded before, only to carve his place as a franchise centerpiece when few envisioned his NBA career lifting off.
"I remember my struggle vividly," Oladipo said in an interview with B/R before his injury. "I remember it like it was yesterday, and I still struggle today, because I'm still human. But at the end of the day, I remember what it was like getting out of it too, and that's where my confidence comes from, because I know if I did it once, I can keep doing it, and I know I can do it again."
His father, Chris, arrived in the United States from West Africa and earned his Ph.D. in behavioral science at the University of Maryland. He met Victor's mother, Joan, on a business trip to Nigeria, and the two moved to the United States, making roots in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The pair had four children: Kristine and Kendra and twins, Victor and Victoria.
While his father focused his parenting efforts on his son's academics, it was the women in Victor's life who shaped him as a person and a player.
"It's crazy because each sister taught me something different, and then my mom honestly taught me a lot as well," Oladipo said. "They taught me not only how to be a man but how to treat a woman as well."
From his oldest sister, Kristine, who is now in dental school, Victor saw the value of pursuing his career with passion. "No matter if you're making people happy or not happy, because that's what she did," Oladipo said. "She followed her dream."
Kendra, who is deaf, is studying film and demonstrated a perseverance her brother has tried to internalize. "She teaches me there's no such thing as a tough time," Oladipo said. "If she can get through that, I can get through anything."
And of his twin, with whom he regularly consults, Victor said, "She taught me how to be confident in myself and embrace who I am and embrace the way I look, embrace the way I feel, embrace what I do and be proud of it."
Then there were the lessons no family member could or would want to teach, lessons that he took from the game that broke his heart but in the process created a love for it. In kindergarten, Oladipo arrived at the gym, intent to join a team that several of his friends had been placed on. "I just remember my mom telling me that they didn't want me," Oladipo said. "That was my first-ever experience of people not wanting you at such a young age." Victoria was waiting in the car for her twin to sign up when Victor, crying hysterically, returned with their mother.
"You would've thought somebody stole his favorite toy or something," Victoria said. "That's when I knew that he had to be playing basketball."
The league placed him on another team. His new team won the championship.
Soon after, Oladipo started looking up to Nigel Munson, a point guard from DeMatha's famed program. Munson served as a big brother, engaging Oladipo, playing him in one-on-one games. Oladipo started imagining himself playing for the high school.
At DeMatha, Oladipo joined the school's morning sessions conducted by David Adkins, then an assistant coach.
Before sunrise each morning, the family crammed inside of their car for the nearly hourlong trek from the suburbs to the high school. Victoria attended the all-girls Elizabeth Seton High School. A janitor would open the cafeteria and let her wait for school to start while her family took Victor to DeMatha.
"God rest his soul," Victoria Oladipo said. "If it wasn't for the janitor, I would be outside of the school waiting for somebody to get there."
Oladipo never missed a day of the early sessions.
"Workouts started at six, shoes were tied, you were on the court ready to go," said Adkins, now an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards. "If you came running in a minute late, regardless, you had to sit and watch for four days before you could participate in the fifth day of a workout."
With Adkins, Oladipo worked on his jump shot, which was then tight and compact. Adkins had him sit in a chair in front of a mirror, so Oladipo could watch himself and replicate his form.
Still, Oladipo did not look like an NBA player at a school that already had its share of NBA-bound talents, like Jerian Grant, Josh Selby and Quinn Cook. He played on the freshman team and with junior varsity as a sophomore. As a junior, he volunteered to come off the bench.
"He worked hard," Victoria said. "He worked hard to make sure this dream became a reality. He worked at every step. He could've quit, but he didn't."
Mike Jones noticed. And while Victor did not have that one skill that made eyeballs jump, he did everything well and continually made plays that helped win ballgames.
Colleges also started to notice. His father, Chris, hoped Victor would attend Harvard. Chris did not really view basketball as a future profession and never attended games. At one point, he suggested that Victor bypass summer basketball to travel to China for martial arts training, an effort he hoped would diminish his son's connection to the game.
"I think he proposed [martial arts training] as a way for him to almost kind of soften the blow for Victor, just in case basketball never worked out," Victoria said. "It could be like, 'You never really put your all into it.' He would offer suggestions to pull him away from the sport, just in case he never really got too close or realized, 'Hey, maybe this is not an option for you.' But for Victor, I think it was always the option. It was always his main goal."
Oladipo eventually committed to Indiana. He started opening eyes for his defense his sophomore year and took off during a sensational junior year that saw him land among the finalists for the Naismith Award while leading Indiana to a Big Ten championship.
While Jones felt Oladipo would help revitalize an Indiana program that had fallen into a rut, he only started thinking of him as an NBA player once teams performing background research started calling. Adkins, who had coached Kevin Durant in high school, was surprised at Oladipo's rise as well.
"You knew K.D. was going to be a pro in ninth, 10th grade," Adkins said. "You could see what this kid is going to be, with the size, the shooting ability, even though how skinny he was. But with Victor, it was a process. But once I really started watching him, his second year going into his third year at Indiana, I knew that he had a chance to be a dominant player."
Instability greeted Oladipo in Orlando, who had drafted him second overall in 2013. The Magic cycled through coaches. Oladipo cycled through both guard positions. Young players battled one another for prized minutes. And the losses piled up. The atmosphere did not foster an environment for growth. In the summer of 2016, Orlando traded Oladipo to Oklahoma City as part of a package for Serge Ibaka. He spent a season there, trying to find his way as Robin to Russell Westbrook's Batman, before Oklahoma City sent him to Indiana as part of the package for Paul George.
Domantas Sabonis had been involved with both trades. Oladipo called him shortly after the pair found they would be headed to Indiana.
"Don't worry," Oladipo counseled. "Everything is going to be OK. If you win in Indiana, they love you. This place is going to be great for us. Everything always happens for a reason."
Victoria attended a fan-experience event with a group of Pacers season-ticket holders shortly before the start of last season. Fans went wild during the introduction of the roster. The room grew quieter when the announcer called her twin's name. She noticed it, even as she hoped that Victor didn't. "You don't want him to think about that in a negative way, but for me, it's kind of sad, because he's really trying hard, he's really a great player," she said. "I just want people to see in him what I see in him."
They would a few months later. Victor called her to FaceTime. Victoria answered and could see that he had been crying. "Turn on the TV," he said. She flipped to the All-Star announcements. "You're an All-Star. I knew you could do it. See? Now everybody knows it. You've always been an All-Star to me."
In 2017-18, Oladipo earned the NBA's Most Improved Player in averaging 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists while leading the league with 2.4 steals a game. He scored a career-high 47 points against Denver, rallying Indiana to an overtime win. Then came his true splash, a seven-game duel against LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs that left the Pacers defeated but marked them as one of the prime contenders to the Eastern Conference throne after James' departure to the Lakers.
"We knew he was a good player," Indiana assistant Dan Burke said. "We weren't sure of all his strengths, all of his weaknesses. But … he's not afraid of anything. He accepts every challenge."
There were skeptics, much like Oladipo had faced since kindergarten. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert opined that the Pacers "could have done better" in their return for George had they made a deal with Cleveland rather than for Oladipo and Sabonis. And in slotting in for George, Oladipo wasn't merely trying to pick up for a star heading into retirement but a then-four-time All-Star entering his prime.
"He brought a light to the organization, a brightness that no matter what, he's always positive," said Kevin Pritchard, Indiana's general manager. "He brings a super positiveness to the organization, and that's trickled down to everybody, including me. I love that."
Jones believes Oladipo is the ideal leader for Indiana. Teammates naturally gravitate to Oladipo, Jones said. "He's not necessarily leading from the experiences of a LeBron, because LeBron's been leading his entire life, but he's leading from a place of, 'All these guys can follow me, because I know exactly what it's like to be them.' LeBron doesn't know what it's like to be the sixth man. LeBron doesn't know what it's like to be a 20-minute-a-night guy in the NBA. Victor knows what that is. He can effectively communicate with every single person, because he's played that role of everybody on his team."
And now he's playing yet another role LeBron has never tried, that of the star forced to deal with a season-ending injury, a role that will test his patience and perseverance.
"In my whole 26 years of life, I've never seen him without a basketball," Victoria Oladipo said before her brother's injury. "He needs to be playing that sport. That's the only thing that really gives him a sense of fulfillment and, I think, happiness. Even over music. That's his escape, but even so, I think basketball is his first love, his true passion, and for me, it'd be days where I'm like, honestly, he could do anything he wanted. But I was like, 'God, you really need to make it so that he makes it to the NBA, because there's nothing else in the world he would do that would make him as happy as playing basketball.'"
She also noticed that the cheers for Victor's name were much louder at this year's preseason introductions.
Most franchise centerpieces carefully feel out each game, figuring out the flow before going about dissecting defenses. Oladipo plays differently. He typically goes full throttle from the ball's jump, looking to immediately put his imprint on the game.
"If I let the game come to me, I won't play as well," Oladipo said before his injury. "I'm not a conservative type of person. I tried to be that earlier in my career, and it wasn't beneficial for me. My foot's got to be on the gas pedal. I've got to be in attack mode at all times."
The Pacers and Oladipo navigated this season differently. Defenses lasered in on him, clogging the lane and giving him fewer paths to score around the rim. His numbers took a dip from last season, and knee soreness sidelined him for 11 games. Still, when he was on the court, teammates benefited from the focus on Oladipo. "In the evolution of any player, you got to get to this point, and you got to be able to sustain at that level, and then you got to grow again," Burke said. "The thing about Victor is he knows it. He's willing to grow."
Oladipo figured he was on the verge of figuring it out. "I've got to make sure I keep my aggression and my aggressiveness," he said. "I think guys trap and get it out of my hands to take away my aggressiveness, and sometimes I fall into that trap. I've got to be aggressive from the beginning to the end."
He suffered the injury a few days later.
A ruptured quadriceps, the tendon that works with the muscles to straighten one's leg, is a relatively rare injury for NBA players. Tony Parker suffered a torn quadriceps tendon while playing for the Spurs in the 2017 playoffs and returned to the court the following winter. People who suffer the injury are often immobilized for the first month, outfitted in a brace for two months and can perform light on-court activities in about six months, said Dr. Anil S. Ranawat, an orthopedic surgeon at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery.
"Whenever you have a tendon repair, you're always marrying two opposing concepts," Ranawat said. "One is healing, which you want to immobilize for. Two is motion, which is when you want to start moving. So, usually around the one-month mark is the kind of sweet spot where enough healing has taken place, and now you can start moving the knee."
Oladipo is rehabilitating in Miami. The Pacers dropped their first four games without him but have rallied since, winning nine of their next 13.
The Pacers have not issued a timetable for Oladipo's recovery. He has faced challenges before and accomplished his goals.
He now faces his biggest basketball challenge yet after a somewhat inconsistent start to the season on the court.
"The difference between now and when I was younger, I didn't understand why," Oladipo said prior to the injury. "Now, that I'm older, I don't care. I just know at the end of the day, I know my worth, and I know what I can bring to the table, and I know what I'm capable of and I know where I'm going. If they don't want me, it's for a reason, and I trust my process and I trust my journey."
"Honestly, I'm not perfect, so there are certain times where you're hurt and you ask yourself why. Why are things going the way they go? Why are there tough times? Why is it harder? But it's all a part of the process. If you trust your ability and I trust my work ethic and I trust what I bring to the table every day and how hard I work."
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.
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